Monday, April 2, 2012

Damien Hirst Tests What the Market will Bear

There seemed to be a lot of fuss on this morning’s Newshour on BBC World Service Radio over whether or not Damien Hirst should be taken seriously as an artist.  My guess is that Hirst would be the first one to appreciate the irony of the situation:  After all, when we consider how much drivel is aired on Outlook in the name of “human interest,” I can think of any number of listeners wondering whether or not they should take the BBC seriously.  Still, having just read Anita Singh’s piece for the London Telegraph about Hirst’s new show at the Tate Modern, I have to admit that he is doing a damned good job at pushing the envelope, at least for those who believe that all categories must be rigidly defined.

The focus of Singh’s coverage is actually the gift shop, and this should provide the proper context for her entire article.  After all, in the immortal words of Willie Sutton, the gift shop is “where the money is.”  I am less interested in whether or not Hirst is challenging the categorizers over what constitutes an artist and far more interested in the extent of his innovative approaches to testing just what the market will bear.  The featured item in the gift shop is “Hallucinatory Head,” produced in a limited edition of 50.  It is a plastic replica of a human skull, daubed with household gloss paint.  There is nothing particularly challenging about this item until you check the price tag:  £36,800.

At this point the litany of immortal words shifts from Sutton to Billy Mays.  In the full spirit of Mays’ famous “and that’s not all” phrase, Singh then rattles off some of the other offerings:

For those who cannot stretch to the £36,800 skull, there is a set of 12 china plates for £10,500, a spotted skateboard for £480, a deckchair for £310 and a butterfly-print umbrella for £195. Butterfly-print wallpaper costs £700 a roll.

After that, she turns her attention to the exhibition one encounters before getting to the gift shop.

All this arguing over what is art, particularly when it brings the gift shop into the argument, reminds me of an anecdote I related over a year ago:

… I once had to write a review for the Colorado Daily, the student newspaper for the University of Colorado, of an end-of-term exhibit by the Art Department, entitled Colorado Scene, which consisted entirely of plates of dried-out cow pies.  I remember completing my review with the observation that art can be found wherever you set your foot.

I see no reason to withhold applying this wisdom to Hirst, perhaps even extending that final sentence with the world “or whenever you open your wallet.”  Those so obsessed over what art should or should not be (as if that were a valid question in the first place) seem to have blinded themselves to the possibility that Hirst is just testing the current market, which is exactly the point he makes explicitly when holding up a Rembrandt painting as an example.

Back when my wife and I had the resources to collect art, we had a few basic rules to guide our decision-making.  The first was that the object we encountered reached out to both of us in such a way that we felt we really wanted it to be a part of the “landscape” of our home.  Unless that motivation was there in full force, we never bothered to inquire about price.  Having gotten to the level of knowing the price, however, the second rule involved deciding whether that price was within our budget.  If that turned out to be the case, we would have a “family conference” over whether that motivation was still as strong as it had been upon first impressions.  If so, we would close the deal.

These days we really do not have that kind of disposable income;  but, having seen some of Hirst’s stuff, I cannot say that I have encountered anything that would make it past our first rule.  However, to put this decision in an appropriate context, I should note that we recently had a “family conference” over whether we wanted to spend money on a trip to Germany to attend a performance of the Europeras 1 & 2 by John Cage, taking place this summer at the Ruhrtriennale in Bochum.  I know any number of opera lovers who would dismiss such a performance with the full force of their indignation, but the only differences between Cage and Hirst comes down to the facts that Cage is now dead and this year happens to be the centennial of his birth.  Those differences have next to nothing concerning what Cage actually did or what Hirst is now doing;  so, if Hirst can find enough people willing to pay his asking price that he does not have to lower it, then more power to him.

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